WINONA, Minn. – Thirty blank canvasses rested on plastic-covered tables at the Winona Friendship Center on a recent evening. Blobs of colorful paint gleamed on foam plates next to each easel, along with a red plastic cup full of paintbrushes.
On each chair rested a black apron with “BackYard Brushes” spelled out in purple script.
And at either end of the room stood the painting of the hour: a tree in autumn, against a gray-and-green textured background.
Presiding over it all was Sylvia Tolzin, a social worker for Wabasha County by day and a painting party connoisseur by night. The Winona woman wore an oversize plaid shirt speckled with all colors of paint, her brown boots dappled with paint as well, for a cohesive look.
As 6 p.m. approached, the painters filed in and donned their aprons, laughing and talking about the day.
“My name is Sylvia,” Tolzin said. “How many of us have never social painted before?”
Several hands went up.
“OK, this is gonna be fun,” Tolzin said with a grin.
She explained that each painter had four paintbrushes: big, medium, small, and “a nasty-looking thing I call your smoosh brush.”
“Try not to drink your paint water, and try not to put your brushes in your drink,” she joked. “It’s easy to do.”
But the paints are nontoxic, she continued, so drinking paint water isn’t the end of the world. “It’s OK; I’ve done it myself.”
While it’s clear Tolzin is in her element with a canvas in one arm and a paintbrush in the other, she got into painting classes quite by accident.
Her friends who own a bar in Minnesota City wanted to do a group painting event last summer. So they asked Tolzin, who has an art degree, to lead an art party in their backyard.
“We had 15 people in the backyard of her bar, and we had a blast,” Tolzin told the Winona Daily News.
Then another friend, who was raising money for the Susan G. Komen foundation, asked Sylvia to lead a class — which ended up bringing 101 people to Yahooligans Bar & Grill in Kellogg.
Tolzin owned 18 easels. She scrambled to buy 80 more, and BackYard Brushes was born.
“It worked out and it was fun,” she said. Now Tolzin’s parties happen in yards, garages, living rooms, basements, bars and pizza places.
The back of her car is full of art supplies, so when it’s time to go, she tosses in a few extra easels and hits the road.
“I have a mobile art studio in the back of my Kia,” she laughed.